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Kamel: Online college education can’t supplant the campus experience

Jonathan Kamel

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In the media lately, there has been a push in favor of online college courses and universities. These new forms of education are seen as the answers to the rising cost of higher education and the intense competition of admissions in our nation’s best universities. Online classes have the potential to revolutionize the education industry. With real professors at universities such as Stanford and MIT beginning to teach new massively open online courses, or MOOCs, the potential for greater access to education, especially among international students, is great.

Yet for the typical American student, online classes will never replace the lecture and discussion system present in our nation’s universities. And as long as the college experience remains as socially driven as it is academic, online universities will struggle to gain a foothold within higher education.

Advocates of online education fail to value the social education one receives by physical attending a college or university. The opportunities for networking, leadership experience and becoming part of a community are all factors that continue to make higher education relevant in our society. While our country’s current collegiate system may have inherent flaws, it continues to provide the necessary results of able, young workers.

One of the hidden purposes of a collegiate education is transforming immature teens into productive and responsible adults. In a college setting, peers of the same age are able to make mistakes and learn from them in a process that fosters maturation. Living at home and gaining an education online cannot provide the learning experiences that come from college parties, pulling all-nighters to study for an exam, or rushing a fraternity.

While we all came to Northwestern to receive a top-notch education, the social possibilities that college presents weigh equally, if not more, in the merits of matriculating at a university. At what other point in our lives will we have the opportunity to participate in an event as large as Dance Marathon or the chance to guard The Rock for 24 hours?

Leadership positions across college campuses give students relevant experience when entering the job market. Planning events, consulting businesses, marketing through social media, and instituting public policy are all daily occurrences on college campuses that do not relate to academics but have a large role in shaping students’ education.

Online education also provide little opportunity for networking. College graduates out-compete online graduates and non-graduates for jobs because they have superior connections. The career services and alumni schmoozing that universities provide can alter a student’s career path. The professor who offers a student a research position for a summer internship cannot be found through an online medium. Students are not able to get to know their professors, perhaps costing them future job opportunities. The prestige of graduating from a four-year institution will be hard to replicate by the new online market as employers continue to value established institutions over those that are online such as the University of Phoenix.

The interaction between a student and professor in a classical classroom setting is what drives academic communities. There is something sterile about learning from a professor through a computer screen. Online courses are often one-size-fits-all. Although newer formats hope to break this trend, many existing program’s lectures are pre-recorded, with an unknown professor speaking to anonymous students probably still in bed wearing their pajamas.

In an online class there is no chance for debate, no sharing of knowledge face-to-face, no one-on-one discussions.  Learning is best as a collective experience, not a lonely endeavor that involves little intellectual stimulation. While motivated students may be able to excel through online courses, the majority of students will feel isolated, disconnected from the international academic community, and unprepared for the workforce.

Education continues to be the great equalizer in modern day society. While promoting higher education to a wider percentage of the population is a virtuous goal, doing so through the online medium will not fix the education gap in this country. The government must continue to keep its promise to lower the cost of college while maintaining aid to all who need it. While the future of our country may lie in a complete digital age, the education of the next generation does not have to.

Jonathan Kamel is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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